Supersonic recently announced its Unlimited Air Fibre product, a new uncapped wireless broadband solution which promises to offer fibre-like performance at affordable prices.
Starting at R399 per month, customers will be able to get a constant-bitrate connection beginning at 5Mbps and going all the way up to 100Mbps.
MyBroadband spoke to MTN Supersonic Managing Director Calvin Collett about how the new product will work and what makes it different from other fibre alternatives – such as fixed-LTE and 5G.
“Our mandate as Supersonic has always been to be the agile, innovative arm of MTN, and I think this showcases this ability,” Collett said about the solution.
He emphasised that the product qualified as truly unlimited according to advertising standards, which meant that it is uncapped, unshaped, and unthrottled.
“For us, it is about getting into the user’s home and giving them access to the Internet without the worry of bill shock…or running out of data,” he stated.
Unlimited Air Fibre will run on the Gigabit 1 (G1) radio equipment system, which was designed by a company called Tarana Wireless.
G1 has been labelled as the world’s lowest-cost suburban gigabit broadband system, promising to deliver a 10x improvement in the network economics of gigabit broadband access at a massive scale.
The team behind the solution boasts a wealth of expertise and experience, with 26 PhDs between them from reputed universities including Berkeley University, MIT, and Stanford University.
Due to its extensive network footprint on the continent, MTN has secured exclusivity for this product in Africa, Collett said
The G1 system comprises base station components which will be installed at existing MTN towers and connected to its fibre backhaul and core transmission network, as well as a client antenna to be mounted at the user’s home.
The latter is connected to via a router placed in the home.
Using unlicensed spectrum
One important difference between Air Fibre and mobile connectivity is the fact that it uses unlicensed spectrum in the 5.8GHz band instead of the licensed bands occupied by mobile operators.
Typically, the major caveat with using this spectrum is that it is susceptible to interference from equipment such as IoT devices, two-way radios, and Wi-Fi routers, which use the radio waves in these bands to communicate.
However, Collett said that the G1 offered a superior interference cancellation mechanism that employs beam-forming technologies.
This makes it better at handling interference than the frequency hopping used by other solutions.
“Rather than typical noise cancellation which hops from one frequency to the next, this doesn’t. It actually ignores noise from other radios,” Collett stated.
“It constantly sends out six beams to understand the lay of the land and then uses that path to pick up the signal,” Collett said.
“At any one time, it has got six different signals going out and assume one comes back, fully formed, it uses the one. If three come back, it collates the three and uses the three. If six come back, it collates the six and uses all six,” Collett stated.
He added that because the solution operates within the lower frequency bands, it is not susceptible to interference from bad weather either, a big issue for satellite connectivity.
Collett further highlighted that Air Fibre users won’t have to deal with another problem faced by LTE and 5G users – network congestion.
Typically, there can be any amount of mobile network users pulling signal from a tower, and because of the limited licensed spectrum available in South Africa, this could impact network performance heavily.
However, because a physical installation and equipment are required for the service, Supersonic will have a view of the exact number of customers connected to an Air Fibre base station in a given location.
This allows the ISP to manage congestion in order to guarantee a constant bit-rate throughput.
“It is a very controlled, contained environment, versus the uncontrolled, uncontained environment that is typically your mobile space,” Collett said.
In terms of capacity, one 90-degree sector around a tower would be able to support up to 500 customers at a maximum throughput of 2.5Gbps.
With four sectors around a base station, Air Fibre can service up to 2,000 customers in an area at a maximum throughput of 10Gbps.
In theory, this means that Supersonic can support 2,000 5Mbps connections at peak network usage in a single area around a tower.
In addition, Collett stated that since the outdoor fixed antenna is pointed at the base station, it will ensure that latency is low.
“It’s a proper installation, with high throughput and high gain on the antennas,” Collett said.
According to him, AirFibre will run at latencies of between 15ms and 20ms, which is much faster than LTE and similar to fibre or 5G.
Collett said that the lower frequency within which the solution operates means it won’t be susceptible to inclement weather either.
Cheaper and faster rollout
According to Collett, it should take between two to three weeks for Air Fibre to go live in an area once interest in the location is at a sufficient level.
“Because of the low time to install, we decided: let us rather go into the areas that genuinely want it, genuinely need it,” Collett said.
In order for an installation at a base station to be justified, Collett said at least 350 customers would have to show interest within a 5km radius of an MTN base station.
Collett said that Supersonic was not gunning for fibre network operators with this solution.
Instead, the ISP wanted to bring reliable, always-on connectivity into areas where it does not exist.
“For us to go and overlay this on top of places that already have four different types of connectivity options doesn’t make sense,” Collett stated.
In this regard, Supersonic is aiming to expand its footprint in the following four areas:
- Fibre-scarce suburbs in cities
- Secondary towns
- Peri-urban regions
Unlimited Air Fibre packages will be available on a month-to-month basis, with no upfront fees, Collett said.
“We really want to make it affordable and easy to access,” he stated.
He added that Supersonic may consider adding the option to burst speeds on certain packages as they assess the product’s rollout over the next few months.
“We might say you can burst to double your capacity – with a guaranteed 5Mbps, but burstable up to 10Mbps, as an example,” Collett said.